It was January 2, 2019 and it was the first time that NBA Superstar Kawhi Leonard would be returning to his once beloved city of San Antonio after his trade to the Toronto Raptors. Leonard was the next in line of franchise players that Spurs coach Greg Popovich had been grooming to build a championship team around. He had been a part of the team for seven years and from all outside perspective, he was literally the perfect player to take over.
But during the 2017-2018 season, he injured the quadricep in his right leg. Somewhere during the recovery process, things began to turn south. The Spurs said he was ready to return, but his trainer said he wasn’t. The media began questioning. Kawhi no longer travelled with the team or sat courtside. Everyone around the situation could sense tension with the coaches and by the end of the season, even his teammates began making public comments. Something was going down.
During that offseason, Leonard didn’t say much, but he unequivocally expressed his desire to be traded. He didn’t want to play in San Antonio any longer and he didn’t want to play for Coach Popovich.
In July, Kawhi was traded. In January he returned for the first time with his new team.
I’ve seen athletes get booed before. That’s not unusual. What I’ve never seen is an athlete get booed the entire game.
From the moment Kawhi came on the floor for warm ups… he got booed.
When they announced him in the starting lineup… he got booed.
When he touched the ball for the first time… he got booed.
When he stepped up to the free throw line… he got booed.
With four minutes left in the game and the Spurs up by 25… they were still booing.
It was incessant and the fans were sending a message loud and clear.
This is a story of his first game back to San Antonio and how the crowd (the city) responded. And while this is a story about an athlete and a sport, it’s also a story about you and your life’s work. You may never have walked out onto a court where you were booed, but I’ll bet someone has verbally criticized you or left a negative review online for all to see.
So let’s hit four observations about booing and maybe some principles we can learn to overcome negativity.
1. Everyone Gets Booed
The best place to start is by defining reality. The truth is that if you’re doing any type of work, you’ll end up receiving criticism for it at some point. I think it’s safe to say that no one is immune. And if you’re doing really important work, the criticism runs deeper. And if you’re in front of a lot of people, it will come at you more frequently.
This is the same reason why EVERY Amazon best-selling book receives one-star reviews. Take Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone for example. It’s the best selling book in our generation, and yet if you look on Amazon, there are 420 one-star reviews. Sure there are 28,503 other reviews (at the moment of course), but guess which ones probably stick out the most.
I’d be willing to say that if you had 420 people tell you that your life’s work sucked, you’d probably be discouraged at best and you’d most likely be in ongoing counseling.
The truth is this: THERE ARE ALWAYS TWO AUDIENCES. The audience that connects with your voice and work and values and passion. And the audience that doesn’t. That audience will always get more satisfaction out of not liking your work and letting others know about it.
2. The Boos Are Right
The other truth is this: BOTH AUDIENCES ARE RIGHT.
The raving fan that loves your work is correct. The critic who doesn’t like your work is correct - after all, he’s allowed to have an opinion and express it.
My wife and I are foodies. We love food and we especially love nice restaurants. However, we have some dietary restrictions that can make it a little challenging sometimes. We’ve been to a few Michelin Star restaurants together (two specifically) where we had to leave mid-meal because they wouldn’t accommodate our dietary requirements. On one side of it, you would think some of the top chefs in the world would be able to work with customers to modify their offerings. On the other side, Michelin Star chefs are known less for the actual ingredients they are serving and more for the way the ingredients are served. So much of it is about the combination, the process, the timing, the art. When someone wants that modified, they simply say no. Both sides are right.
In San Antonio, the fans had every right to boo. However, it had less to do with how Kawhi left or what he said (or didn’t say) and more to do with the fact that some people didn’t connect to what he decided was important.
The fans were right to boo. Kawhi was right to leave. They’re both right.
You got a scathing review. You’re building a great practice. They’re both right.
3. The Boos Are Meaningless
Hopefully, you’re following this progression: everyone gets booed, the boos are right, but… the boos are meaningless.
Boos are not useful. They’re not constructive and they’re not profitable to the process of building a business.
Kawhi could have stayed in San Antonio to avoid the criticism. He might also have killed his career or compromised core values in the process.
We recently had a very difficult client express his frustration with our process and our product (thankfully this rarely happens). I personally had four phone calls with him in an effort to move the project forward to completion. Throughout the calls I was booed. He was critical and he had no issue telling me exactly where we failed to meet his expectations.
He was right. It was also meaningless. Sure, we’ll walk away with a few things that we could do better next time, but it also won’t be allowed to affect the important work that we feel called to.
4. The More Meaningful Your Work, the Higher Percentage of Boos
The more you’re in social media and the more your work is in the public eye and the more disruptive it is to the status quo, the more boos will come your way.
Elon Musk and Telsa are a great example. Musk’s life’s work is in the spotlight. He is disrupting a very entrenched industry to create something that will impact the planet for centuries. And yet, there is an almost endless flow of critical, negative, rude, and unnecessary comments made about him. I’m sure Elon is very aware of this progression: everyone gets booed, the boos are right, but the boos are meaningless.
There’s another really interesting piece about Kawhi’s return to San Antonio. In the original deal between the Spurs and Toronto, another beloved player, Danny Green was also traded. So this wasn’t just Kawhi’s return home. It was Danny Green’s as well. But guess how they responded to him? They cheered.
When Green touched the ball, the crowd cheered. When Leonard touched the ball, they booed and chanted “traitor.” Two different reactions for two different people caught up in the same situation.
Why so different? It’s easy: Kawhi is a superstar.
Of course Danny Green is a superstar. To even play in the NBA, you HAVE to be a superstar. But once you get to that level, the requirements change. Green is a great role player. He’s a great supportive player. Kawhi Leonard is someone you build a franchise around. You can put the weight of a city’s expectations on his shoulders and he’ll deliver. That’s the difference.
Coach Popovich has a long history of building championship teams around legendary players. Think David Robinson; Followed by the transition to Tim Duncan; Followed by the transition to Kawhi Leonard. He was their guy. His role was significant and impactful and the entire city knew it. So when he left, it was a shock that forced the team and the city to redefine reality moving forward.
Lebron James left Cleveland and fans burned his jerseys in the streets. Then he announced he was leaving Cleveland again to go play in Los Angeles. Some fans in L.A. responded by saying they “didn’t need a king” on a large billboard in a high traffic area. And yet he will most likely be the greatest basketball player of all time (save your opinions, I know I’m right on this one).
The more meaningful your work, the more boos.
In a sense, it’s a sign that what you’re doing matters.
KAWHI IS FINE
After all that, let’s fast forward a bit. Kawhi will be fine and San Antonio will be fine. The fact is he helped them win a championship and was named the MVP in the process. The city will remember that, and once this stinging wound has time to heal, Leonard will return home to cheers. That’s always how it works.
If I could leave you with some encouragement, know this: Critics are short-sighted. Your work is legacy. Don’t take a moment to stop and listen. Stay focused and pursue the vision. I have a funny feeling that some of those critics will end up coming around to cheer you on down the road.